In 1953 the Canadian Geographical Society published a glossy black-and-white volume called “Image of Canada.” It has the usual inspiring pictures of Saskatchewan wheat fields and Toronto city lights; of majestic glaciers and mighty log booms.
The book also contains images that open a window to the past, and let us see the world through 1950s eyes.
On the left is a picture of a Indian boy, going to school and learning to adopt a Canadian identity.
Image of Canada pictures Indian and Eskimo children learning valuable life skills in their residential schools; ones that will serve them well in adulthood (more information on the Fort George school, shown below, can be found here):
It shows well-equipped schools, where students learn a standard of values:
Graduates of the residential schools speak good English, and know a trade:
It was all part of a grander project:
Sixty years later, we have a less rosy image of Canada’s residential schools. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented the misery and suffering experienced by many in the system. This overview summarizes the main findings. It’s worth reading.
The point of revisiting the residential schools story, and sharing these images here, is to illustrate how easy it is to get education wrong.
Governments and educational institutions are currently embracing the concept of learning outcomes. For example, the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), the provincial government agency that assures the quality of Ontario’s universities, writes:
A focus on learning outcomes has the potential to modernize teaching and learning across the province.
Canada’s residential schools had clearly defined, government approved, learning outcomes. Indians were to be civilized, taught a standard of values, and, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper put it, “assimilated into the dominant culture”. They were to learn English and vocational skills – farming or a trade for the boys, domestic science for the girls.
In retrospect we can see that teaching farming to boys with little access to good quality arable land was probably not a wise use of resources. We might question the necessity of severing children’s ties to with their parents, and their traditional cultures, in order to teach them English. We might have some doubts about the desirability of “civilizing the Indian mind“. But, at the time, important people embraced and supported these learning outcomes, and believed residential schools were an effective way of delivering them.
The mere existence of learning outcomes is not, in and of itself, a guarantee of educational quality. Our learning outcomes may not stand the test of time: we may be doing the modern equivalent of teaching hand-plowing in a mechanizing world. And we may be delivering those learning outcomes badly. But we can’t know; we can’t see ourselves as people 60 years from now will see us.
The residential school tragedy was also a story of educators responding rationally to reward schemes. A per capita funding model gave residential schools every incentive to admit as many students as possible, leading to overcrowded schools. At the same time, governments lacked the political will to provide schools for Aboriginal students with adequate resources. Residential schools were expected to be at least partly self-sustaining. Until 1951,
… the schools operated according to what was termed the half-day system, under which half a day was spent in the classroom and the other half in vocational training…. the girls were trained in the domestic sciences. In reality, this was not so much training as child labour, undertaken to subsidize the ongoing operation of the schools.
Nick Rowe wrote, in his confessions of a central planner, “It’s not enough (in some cases) to put the carrot in front of the donkey. You have to point to the carrot, tell the donkey it is a carrot, and that he can eat it.” This is true of animals who have been lured into the donkey wagon, with the promise of carrots, once too often. It is not true of animals who have learned, from experience, that carrots are delicious and nutritious. The problem in academia is not that incentives are ineffective. Rather, incentives work all too well, sometimes with unfortunate and unintended consequences – professors who neglect teaching and administrative duties to pursue a more personally rewarding research agenda, universities who lure students into programs with promises of job opportunities that are unlikely to materialize, and so on.
Canada’s residential schools are a thing of the past. Yet the forces that helped create them – poorly thought out and delivered learning outcomes, inadequate funding, perverse responses to financial incentives – are a real and present danger.